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Defining Minorities

By Ram Puniyani

11 April, 2007

Allahabad High Court ruling (April 2007) that Muslims have ceased to be a minority in UP as their percentage in population is 18.5% totally defies the logic of Indian Constitution, the legislatures understanding and the pronouncements of the Supreme court on the issue. No wonder it has been stayed by a two judge bench. This verdict gave a lot of ammunition to many to feel jubilant, and pen pushers of right wing ideology got extra boost to spew their anti minority sentiments. It is argued that by retaining the concept of minority these sections are reminded about their being 'different' and that sows the seed of divisiveness. They even point out that Africans-Americans were/are considered a minority as there was systematic injustice against them, they were discriminated against. But in India there is no such case for Muslims so they should not be considered as minorities, neither should there be any affirmative action for them.

There have been similar sentiments by a large section of ideologues that belong to Right wing politics. It is also noteworthy, that these are precisely same sections who celebrate when the quota for OBC is questioned and reservations against dalits are opposed.

Is there a place for minority concept in democracy, and who should be called a minority? These questions were settled by the Constituent assembly and samples of the debates around these issues indicate the national thinking on that. The attitude of the founders of Indian Constitution, who were themselves echoing the values of freedom movement, indicates a lot on the matter. It was pointed out in Constituent assembly debates that numerical weakness and soci-economic vulnerability should be the major criterion in defining the minority. Even the United Nations charter of Human rights went on to recommend the affirmative action towards minorities of all
types. India is a signatory to many a UN declarations on minority rights.

All minorities are not disadvantaged. We can see that Brahmins are also a minority within Hindu religion, but the prevalent caste system gave them inherent advantage. There are people who try to find a 'poor' Brahmin as a ground to show that caste based reservations are not valid. But surely the social connections of Brahmin minority, ensures that poor and deprived Brahmins, is more a matter of exception. In India the minority generally boils down to religious minority. This is more of a legacy of the India's the policies and politics which were prevalent before Independence, and this, while prevalent all through, has got re-strengthened after the rise of religion based politics from the decade of eighties. This identity politics has rolled back many a conceptual developments which were in progress during the decades immediately after the independence.

The affirmative action for dalits and OBC itself has come under heavy criticism from the same social sectors. Also the thought of development programs for Muslim sends shivers of discomfort amongst many. We have witnessed that a particular ideology which is solidly against this affirmative action for dalits and minorities, was at the root of riots against dalits and OBCs, in Gujarat in the decade of 1980s. This ideology suits those whose children are in the category of 'economic reservation' as they can openly 'buy' education, knowledge and degrees by shelling out the bagfuls of money.

One wonders how the condition of Indian Muslims is different from that of African Americans for whom affirmative action is being accepted and recommended. Have Muslims found a decent, tolerant atmosphere here? Let's recall that 'social common sense' has been against them all through. The policy of subtle discrimination against them was in operation all through. Private sector dominated by the non Muslims kept them out deliberately. As communal violence was unleashed from sixties, it went on rising and went to critical limits from the decades of 80s. Various
statistics coming from Home ministry Government of India, compilation of data on riot victims shows that over 80% of riot victims are Muslims. The violence has ghettoized large section of this community. The progressive norms which were being picked up by the community despite economic odds got a set back after the Babri demolition and massive anti Muslim violence which followed. Later after the Gujarat carnage, this process of ghettoization got intensified. Today irrespective of whether communalism, communal violence is visible or not, most of the states are witnessing an atmosphere where minorities feel intimidated and stifled.

It is true that minorities should not perpetuate their condition and try to come out of minority psyche and feel like anybody else. But what happens if the political climate is very adverse to your progress. What happens when the social thinking demonizes you times and over again, in every aspect of social existence, on any or every pretext? The earlier slogan of Jan Sangh, the previous avatar of BJP, had launched campaign called "Indianize Muslims"; giving a clear message that they are not Indians and so they must be Indianized. This is a 'catch twenty-two'. On one hand minorities are excluded from the process of social development, as they are the 'other' and at the same time a demand is made to them to subordinate to the dictates of dominant political stream which is trying to assert as to what should be the social norms. This exclusionary religious tendency is presenting their religious symbolism as the national symbolism.

Every study and data has been pointing to the worsening position of Muslim community. First the Gopal Singh Committee and now the Sachar Committee has shown this marginalization and exclusion. How does one become part of so called mainstream when one feels excluded and jeered upon? And if for bringing them on par with others, if some efforts are undertaken to protect their interests, to support them breathe freely, is it divisive factor or is it only way to strengthen our society? Some ideologues are used to the image of society in the past 'glories' where the Shudras, in their ghettoes, lived to serve the upper caste masters. Is it that which is being presented as the ideal nation? The tendency which is trying to dominate in the name of religion, essentially wants to bring back that state of society and so the opposes the efforts which will empower the ghettoized masses.

The criticism against Sachar committee is that it is creating myth that Muslims are disempowered, and so this committee report should be ignored and bypassed. What are the parameters for assessing the level of empowerment or otherwise of a social group? Surely the socio, economic and political representation should be the main parameter. One knows that not only that Muslim community has seriously been excluded from the development process, they were also forced into low level self employment, that's why some surveys may find that rate of their employment is better than others. Here the definition of employment has to be kept in mind. As such the type of self employment which a large section of Muslim community had to resort to was the last option and not a preferred choice. It has become the norm because of the exclusionary policies adopted by the sections of society, who have a powerful say in the matters, and in the running of the state. It by no means is a symbol of empowerment of minorities.

One is sure that the two judge bench's superseding the 'Muslims are not a minority judgment' will be upheld by the due process of law. In the overall political scenario and the economic perspective, a radical change has to take place where suitable employment for every person is the norm. The size of cake is also a problem. The type of economic development being pursued has to be superseded by one which aims at giving employment to all, and in the interregnum the affirmative action for different disadvantaged sections has to be pursued to unite the society. The definition of minorities needs to be recalled from the Indian constitution and understood in the context of constituent assembly debates.


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